Togo’s franchisee review: Jeff Cohen of La Crescenta, California
Family ties build a strong business for brothers and owners of 16 Togo’s franchises
Jeff Cohen owns 16 Togo’s franchises in California, along with his brothers Frank and Tim, making the trio the brand’s largest franchisees, surpassing even the company owned and operated restaurant system. Jeff and Tim bought their first location in 2005, and their brother Frank joined them shortly after graduating college. Jeff shares with us some of the many lessons he’s learned as a multi-unit Togo’s franchise owner.
How do you divide up your responsibilities as co-owners?
I handle the operation of the business and staff concerns like hiring. My younger brother Frank does the back-end stuff, so if something like the online ordering for one of our stores stops working, he’ll gather the information and call up the company. He also does some of the tax and financial preparation. We both run errands and do what we need to do.
My older brother Tim actually still works a full-time job, so he helps us on the deals when we’re looking to buy another store. He talks to the seller and gets all the terms ironed out. He does what he does very well, and when we need to make good deals he’s there to go get them.
How did you decide you wanted to open a franchise?
I finished college in 2003 with a degree in biomedical engineering, and I couldn’t really find the kind of job I wanted. The offers I was getting weren’t worth it for me. I decided it was time to go into business for myself.
In 2005, we started working on the deal to buy our first Togo’s. We found a bank that was aggressive enough to loan us the money, and we paid off that first store in Corona and paid them back every penny.
What appealed to you about the Togo’s franchise as a business opportunity?
We chose food because food is not going to go away. With Togo’s, we liked the brand and they took a chance on us. Just like the bank, Togo’s could have easily said no, but they didn’t, and now we’re the largest franchise holder.
What’s your average day or average week like?
There’s certain tasks I do every week, like putting together the weekly numbers with managers. There’s a lot of calling managers and just letting them talk. They’ll tell me if they need more uniforms or dishes or if they’re having a problem with a neighbor and then I impart my guidance to the manager and let them grow and handle the store.
You want to stay in touch with the managers every two or three days at least, so they know they’re not alone, so they know that you care about them and the store. I used to work in the store every day, but with 16 stores I can’t do that anymore. When you’re there, they know you care and you know they care, and that’s all it takes. The rest of it is just finding a way to do the right thing.
What is it about Togo’s that’s so appealing to guests?
Guests come in and they like the sandwich, the people and the value, and they keep coming back. We have guests who come in every day. An employee might happen to see someone’s car pull into the parking lot and he just stops whatever he’s doing to start making that guy’s sandwich. By the time he’s in the door, that sandwich is almost ready and he’s in and out. There are also people who want to talk, and they say, “You know what I like about this sandwich maker? He really treats me like a person and not just some customer that walks in. He asks about my kids and my family, and I really love that.”
There’s a wide appeal. We’re consistent, and that’s important. Togo’s has been around for a long time, it’s not going anywhere. We’re a West Coast brand with wide appeal and responsible growth, and that’s good for a brand.
How does the corporate office support franchisees?
Togo’s understands its franchisees pretty well. The franchisees are a pretty eccentric bunch. You’ve got some older people who don’t even use email and you’ve got younger people that are using smartphone apps to organize everything. When things change and corporate needs input, they include franchisees in the process. I know a lot about the business, and I can bring value to the people who are making the important decisions. They recognize that.
What kind of specific support have you gotten from the corporate team?
I like them to come into the stores as much as they can, because they’re like a second set of eyes. They know the strengths and weaknesses of my managers and give them advice on how to run the stores.
I had a lease situation at one of my stores, so I called the CEO and told him, “This store might not be here in a couple of months, we’ve got a real problem here.” We set up a call with the landlord and negotiated with her. It was good to have somebody fighting for me, somebody who was there when I needed him. The situation ended well, and that store is still open.
What made you and your brothers decide to go into business together?
We were very close as kids. After college, we were just sort of looking for what was next. We work together well because we know each other and trust each other. We get on each other’s nerves from time to time, but it’s always gone well. We have disagreements, but we don’t fight. I don’t trust anybody like I trust my family, and I wouldn’t think of taking on a partner I couldn’t rely on in that way.
Do you have any advice you would give to new or potential franchisees?
There’s always risk. You might be the hardest worker and the smartest guy, but something could be totally out of your control. You should definitely network and talk to experienced franchisees. If I’d had more of those conversations, I could have learned so much more quickly than I did.
The business requires your time and attention. If you’re looking to just buy a store, put in a manager and hope it’s going to run, that’s not going to work. You’ve got to be able to put some time in and you’ve got to understand the business in order to make the right decisions.
What’s it like to be the largest Togo’s franchise owner?
It’s good to be successful. It sounds much more glamorous than it is, believe me, but it feels good to have assets. It feels good to have a business, but I’m still humble. I don’t think I’ve “made it;” I’ve still got a lot of work to do. We’ve got a lot of growing to do.